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State warning parents against opting kids out of PARCC test

As Chicago Public Schools and the Illinois State Board of Education continue to tussle over whether CPS students will take a new Common Core-aligned standardized test this spring, ISBE is telling parents that federal law prohibits them from opting their children out of the controversial test.

That’s in spite of laws and practices in other states that let parents decide whether their children will sit for the test — and of last year’s public outcry of CPS parents refusing to sit their children for the now-extinct ISAT exam.

“I know some of you have already received questions from parents who would like their children to be able to opt out of taking the test. Opting out of PARCC is not an option,” State Superintendent Christopher A. Koch recently wrote to district administrators, giving them a letter  to forward to parents who asked about opting out. ISBE also cited a provision of the federal No Child Left Behind act about academic assessment requirements: “Such assessments shall provide for the participation in such assessments of all students.”

ISBE, which requires districts and schools to administer the same test to each student every year, has interpreted that line as a federal mandate for parents as well, saying the state has no specific opt-out provision.

“Federal law and state law says every child has to have the opportunity to be given the same state tests,” ISBE spokeswoman Mary Fergus said.

But PARCC opponents say requiring the test to be given isn’t the same as requiring children to take it.

At least six other states allow parents to opt out and even more remain mum when parents do, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a Massachusetts-based group working to end “misuses and flaws of testing practices.”

California, Wisconsin and Nebraska are among states with a specific opt-out statute. New York and others don’t, but thousands of New York schoolchildren refused to take their annual state test last year with no repercussions, said Robert Schaeffer, the group’s public education director.

“No Child Left Behind does not speak to it either way,” Schaeffer said. “There are differences in state practices.”

Last spring, parents at at least 60 CPS schools refused to let their children take the Illinois State Achievement Test, saying they didn’t want their children put through the ISAT when another standardized test would count for teacher evaluations and school ratings.

The state wrote to CPS in February saying “districts and schools are required to administer” the ISAT, but sent no warning to parents. Neither CPS nor ISBE could say how many children eligible to take the ISAT skipped it.

Illinois is set to begin the PARCC this spring, replacing the elementary level ISAT and high-school level Prairie State Achievement Examination with brand new tests aligned to Common Core state standards that are supposed to be tougher and require more critical thinking skills.

In an unusual alliance, Raise Your Hand Illinois is backing CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s recent efforts to stave off full PARCC implementation for at least another year.

Raise Your Hand Illinois representatives and CPS parents are petitioning against PARCC to ISBE, and have gathered nearly 2,000 signatures in three weeks. The parents, who’ve taken online sample PARCC tests, say the test is unnecessarily confusing, requires technology the district does not yet have for every child, and needs precious classroom time to show children how to use the test’s technology.

“Illinois is not alone in its opposition to this test in its current form,” the petition reads. “In fact, of the 23 states originally planning to use PARCC, only eight states plus the District of Columbia are using both the elementary and high school versions of the PARCC. (Three additional states will use PARCC for some students.)”

Raise Your Hand also is talking to legislators about introducing a formal opt-out bill in January and about existing problems with PARCC, said Cassie Creswell, a board member and organizer with the anti-testing More Than A Score group that was behind last year’s parental opt-out campaign.

“The state must administer the test but that doesn’t mean the kid has to take it,” Creswell said. “On a legal basis, the parent should have the right to refuse for the kids.”

If PARCC prevails, More Than A Score will again show interested parents how to keep their children from taking it, she said. Some parents have already informed schools their children won’t test, she said, adding, “It’s already gearing up a lot earlier than it was for ISAT.”

District spokesman Bill McCaffrey declined to comment on the right to opt out, which Byrd-Bennett supported last year but discouraged. He said CPS is “focused on seeking to extend its PARCC pilot by one year as well as increase the number of schools that administer the assessment.”

“We encourage all students to participate in the standardized tests the district administers, as the results help inform classroom instruction and gauge student achievement,” he wrote.